Why You Shouldn’t Support a Tiktok Ban
We have entered a new and dangerous chapter in internet history
It’s the year 2023. President Trump has just signed an executive order closing down global internet connections. Users will still be able to communicate within the US, access US-designed apps, and US based web-pages, but all other websites, apps, and services are strictly forbidden. The reason given is national security and data privacy. Other nations retaliate, France, for example, concerned about Google’s massive data collection abilities, gives Google 45 days to sell its EU division to an EU-based country or it will be shuttered. Countries the world take similar actions, turning the once vibrant internet into a mess of disconnected silos.
Abuse of Executive Power
This sounds like a dark science fiction scenario, but it is a very real possibility if we follow the logic of President Trump’s latest executive order banning WeChat and Tiktok, two popular Chinese apps, in the US. Constitutionalists and Libertarians should be alarmed. Since when does the Constitution grant the President such broad power, that he, with the stroke of a pen, can block access to a product that disrupts the lives of tens of millions? Since when does a singular individual in a democracy have the power to curtail millions of peoples’ freedom of expression and ability to communicate?
The reasoning behind the bans, which allegedly concerns data privacy and security, are specious. Are not internet giants like Facebook, Twitter, and Youtube, all engaged in massive data collection schemes? Is there anything that really makes Tiktok or Wechat fundamentally different? You might argue that they are Chinese apps and this fact alone sets them apart from the others. But this is actually untrue.
Wechat and Tiktok are international versions of Chinese apps and are quite different and distinct from their Chinese counterparts: they are not as feature-rich and do not share the same restrictions found in Chinese versions. Tiktok has its own US-based headquarters, as does the parent company of Wechat. Together, these industry giants employ thousands of Americans right here in America.
Experts who have reviewed the apps’ code are divided whether or not the data collection schemes of these companies goes any further than other common apps. This calls into question the rationale for banning these apps at all. Indeed, the Trump administration has provided no evidence of any of its claims. If they did indeed investigate and examine these apps and found evidence of unusually nefarious data collection, wouldn’t it behoove the administration to release this information publicly? The reason the evidence hasn’t been released, I fear, is because there just isn’t any. I could be wrong, but color me skeptical of claims that are not sourced with hard evidence.
Of equal concern is the way in which the President is orchestrating this ban. The executive order provides Wechat and Tiktok 45 days to sell themselves to American companies or be forced to shutter. From the outside looking in, this looks very much like a forced technology transfer in exchange for US market access, the very kind of business practice that the Trump administration has frequently accused China of doing. Trump isn’t even trying to hide the extortion angle, he is even demanding that the US Treasury be paid a finders fee for forcing the sale.
Why would any technology company want to enter the US market again, knowing that the President can expropriate their intellectual property on a whim? If the President of Venezuela took over American-owned oil refineries, we would sanction that country for behaving like a third-world dictatorship. How are our actions with Tiktok any different? Not only will this ban likely result in thousands of lost jobs, it will deter future foreign investment into America, further undercuts America’s credibility as a nation ruled by law, and undermines future trade agreements.
The reason that Trump is targeting Tiktok could be personal as well. A few weeks ago, American Tiktok users, trolled the President by registering to attend his Tulsa campaign rally with the full intention of not showing up. This is partly the reason that the Trump campaign prepared for far more attendees than actually showed up, leading to embarrassing photos of Trump giving a speech in a half-empty stadium days after having bragged that over a million had registered to attend. Recall that Trump and his administration began discussing the “security issues” that Tiktok presented just days after the Tulsa humiliation. Not before Tulsa, but after.
Why ban Wechat then? If this was personal, why not focus only on Tiktok? Wechat is largely unknown in the US and very few Americans use it. But it is heavily used by one group in particular: Chinese students studying in America. Banning Wechat would greatly restrict the ability of Chinese diaspora to talk with their families back home and other friends abroad. Making the US a hostile place to visit, study in, or immigrate to is a signature feature of the Trump administration, so this should no surprise at all. Regardless, placing a ban on Wechat also lends credence to the “privacy and security” argument by bringing another Chinese app into focus.
If the government truly cares about privacy and data collection, there are better ways of addressing this issue than playing whack-a-mole with apps via executive orders. For every app that is banned in this way, five more will sprout, some of them more nefarious than the ones they replaced. No, if the motivation here was a genuine concern about privacy, Congress would be writing legislation that limits the data collection practices that technology companies can engage in. These regulations would then be applied to all apps available in American app stores, and would be based on law and not the arbitrary whims of a single individual. You shouldn’t support the Tiktok ban because next time….it won’t be an app that you don’t care about.
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